Sittler’s Sermons

“Abuse is use without grace; it is always a failure in the counterpoint of use and enjoyment.” So argues Joseph Sittler in the title essay of this book. And so argued Sittler again and again, in a speaking and writing style that was uniquely his own, over a long distinguished career as pastor, preacher, and theologian. Whether referring to wine, God, or the care of the earth, Sittler waxes eloquent on the power and grace of God and the many ways we humans may and must respond to God.

Joseph Sittler was never very well known, and is less known today, having died at age 83 in 1987. Even in his lifetime he was not as renowned as he should have been. But among Lutherans of all stripes in America, at the University of Chicago Divinity School where he taught from 1957 The Care of the Earth until 1973, and in the ecumenical life of the World Council of Churches, Sittler was a much beloved (if, at times, controversial) figure. Given the unavailability of most of Sittler’s published work, it is wonderful that Fortress Press has seen fit to produce this slim volume–an adaptation and reprinting of an earlier volume published in 1964.

This eight-chapter book is actually a collection of sermons, most dating from the 1950s and ’60s. While these sermons inevitably show their place and time, they lose little of their power or relevance. Sittler’s advice in “How to Read a Parable,” illustrated by his reading of Luke 14:12- 24, is as wise and timely now as it was forty years ago, for we today, “the churchly beholders and bearers of this sharp vision,” are still “tempted to make a tame possession out of passion, a mild loaf of religion out of this yeasty mass of godly dough” (12-13). In “The View from Mount Nebo,” a sermon originally given at a summer camp, Sittler challenges the belief that “nothing Christian is authentic until and unless it has become a blessed assurance in some specifiable, warm, pervasive, and crucial experience”–that Christian faith is not really faith unless it has been “certified in the heat of one’s individual experience” (36). In response, Sittler asks: “Is the opulence of the grace of God to be measured by my inventory? Is the great catholic faith of nineteen centuries to be reduced to my interior dimensions?” (40). And in “The Treasure and the Vessel,” a sermon originally given to presidents and deans of church-related colleges, Sittler reminds them (and us) that in 2 Corinthians 4:1-10 “we see God’s entire way with humanity, a way that wins by losing, that redeems by dying, that lifts humans up by going down” (76). In a culture even more addicted to domination as a modus vivendi than it was when Sittler lived, such words are much-needed reminders of the way of the cross, especially for those of us in positions of leadership.

Sittler is perhaps most famous for his prescient reflections on the care of the earth. Already in the 1940s he was thinking theologically about ecological degradation. Indeed, Sittler is rightly called, by Paul Santmire and others, a pioneering ecological theologian. (For more on this, see Steve Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken, eds., Evocations of Grace: The Writings of Joseph Sittler on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics [Eerdmans, 2000].) This is particularly evident in this volume’s title essay, where Sittler quotes Richard Wilbur and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Aquinas and J. S. Bach, Fyodor Dostoevsky and e e cummings, to warn that “if the creation, including our fellow creatures, is impiously used apart from a gracious primeval joy in it, the very richness of the creation becomes a judgment” (59). Sadly it is this impious use, this misuse and abuse, that all too often marks and mars our world today. Insofar as we have lost that “gracious primeval joy”–that blessed sense of the earth and its plethora of creatures as Godgiven gifts–we see and treat everything as a commodity, as mere resource, for our consumption.

Like John Calvin of old, Sittler calls us to see the earth as a theatre of God’s glory and to see our most fitting response to be faithful care inspired by heartfelt gratitude. Grace begets gratitude and gratitude begets care. Reality is not reducible to commodities for sale. And Christian faith is about the earth. As Sittler states elsewhere: “I have never been able to entertain a God-idea which was not integrally related to the fact of chipmunks, squirrels, hippopotamuses, galaxies, and light years.” Sittler reminds us, in short, that the earth and our care of it are central to what it means to be a Christian. In the introduction to this book, Sittler’s former colleague, Martin Marty, perhaps says it best: “Sittler helps us discover new ways to care in responding to nature, to human signals, to beauty, to the promptings of the heart, to the Word of God” (viii). May the reading of this book inspire such care.

Steve Bouma-Prediger is associate professor of religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.